If ever there was a time for cheers and fist-pumps in the offices of the Catholic Education Service it was last Friday. For years the CES has lobbied the Government to lift its free schools admissions cap – that is, a cap stopping free schools from selecting more than half their pupils on the grounds of faith. Because of this cap, the Church, one of the main providers of education in Britain, has opened no free schools at all, shutting itself out of one of former education secretary Michael Gove’s key reforms.

Last week it seemed that might change. Theresa May’s announcement that she will seek to lift the cap on the number of baptised Catholics that faith schools are allowed to accept, may sound like a technical detail. It was also overshadowed by news about grammar schools. But this announcement could bring about one of the most significant changes in Catholic education in England and Wales in decades.

The Times was the first to pick up on the implications. “Catholics to build up to 40 new schools,” ran the headline. A call to the Catholic Education Service confirmed that this was no exaggeration. The figure is based on forecasts of demand for school places undertaken by the dioceses. East Anglia, Westminster and Southwark are in particular need of new schools.

The obvious question is why, if there was so much demand, did Catholic schools not open before? According to one source, the old model of setting up Catholic schools has been neglected since the arrival of academies and free schools, which are now the fastest route to expanding Catholic education because they are given priority.

Some might wonder at the CES’s enthusiasm – free schools are, after all, a radical Conservative reform that sidelines the local authority. How have officials been won over?

In fact, senior Church figures have been keen on the idea from the start. In 2010, before the Tories even got into power, the then Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, chairman of the CES, said: “[The free schools idea] interests me greatly, because of course that was exactly how Catholic schools were founded – by local communities getting together, pooling resources.”

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